The Vicarious Consumption of Goods

In 1899 Thorstein Veblen wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” on his observation of division of labor; specifically the effect capitalism had on the upper/leisure class.  As a child of immigrant parents being raised in Wisconsin, Veblen had trouble adjusting and felt isolated from the American way.  This detached upbringing seems to have an impact on the way he describes the leisure class, as he speaks as though he is on the outside of society looking in.  Veblen is very critical of the effects capitalism had on the leisure class and believed it was leading to regression rather than progression. His writing calls out those of the leisure class for their over consumption of goods and their archaic values.

Veblen starts off by describing how the leisure class has taken on the duty of “…the vicarious consumption of goods” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)).  It’s obvious that he is poking fun at the wealthy, as he sees that their only role in society is to buy the products the working class makes.  In a visual sense he is basically comparing them to a parasite, as they received goods without contributing anything back to society.  Veblen goes on to describe the unnecessary waste of goods that go into how people dress.  Dress is considered the easiest way to show others your class, as all observers will know your status at first glance ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)) .  Veblen has trouble trying to fathom why people give up life’s necessities just so they can afford more expensive clothing.  The value of clothing is based on fashion, rather than their practical use which Veblen sees as unenlightened.

After his rant on dress, Veblen decides to go after the very language used by the leisure class.  Those of wealth practice classic English rather than the common tongue seen with the rest of society.  Just as dress shows class status, the use of old/classic English shows that you are of an important, wealthy family.  Veblen describes the word “classic” as word that carries the “…connotation of wasteful and archaic” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)), implying that the use of classic English is simply inefficient and backwards.

Do you agree with Veblen’s statement that the leisure class’ duty is only to consume products?  Why is there such an emphasis on class status during this time?  Do we still stress importance on the way we dress and speak today?





2 thoughts on “The Vicarious Consumption of Goods

  1. I agree with Thorstein Veblen’s belief that the leisure class’s main duty was to consume towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although there were businessmen who overlooked their workers, it was rare that members of this class helped produce goods. They, instead, consumed them.

    I believe there was such an emphasis on class status during this time due to the rise in consumerism. After the Industrial Revolution began, Europe experienced a period of innovation and development. This phenomenon increased the number of products that citizens could purchase. Different populations were then inclined to compare each other’s clothes and other possessions to ensure they had the best ones.

    I believe that people today are still completely focused on consumerism, especially in First World countries. Within the United States, for example, people are constantly competing with each other to ensure they have the nicest clothes and newest cell phones. We certainly live in a world dominated by consumerism.

  2. I also agree that at the time, the leisure class’s main duty was to simply consume the goods that the working class made. As Amy pointed out, the leisure class rarely did anything more than overseeing workers when it came to creating products. I think that Thomas Veblen had a good point when he said that the leisure class did not contribute much more to society than their high levels of consumption.

    I also agree with Amy’s point that the great emphasis on class came from the rise in consumerism. The increase in goods that were created in the Industrial Revolution caused an increase on the emphasis on material goods and clothes, which in turn caused an emphasis on class.

    I definitely think that we live in a society today that emphasizes an importance on clothes and other material goods. I also agree with Amy when she points out that the United States and other First World countries have a particularly large problem with this. I see this first hand when I am at home and living with my high school age sister. She is constantly interested in how she looks over social media and making sure that she looks “cool” with all of the latest fashion trends and newest technology. I think that while First World countries, especially the United States, do have a large problem with this, the problem also goes away as people get older. I know that in my own life, I have gotten less interested in having the latest technology as I have gotten older. However, I still believe that we live in a world that is focused on consumerism.

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